A Season in the Congo, Afghanistan, Aimé Césaire, Bradley Manning, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Communism, Edward Snowden, Iraq, Joe Wright, Joseph Mydell, Marianne Badrichani, Ralph Manheim, Tony Blair, Young Vic Theatre
One of the research strands I’m unravelling is the presence of Americans in British theatre when the play isn’t straight American drama. I’m interested in knowing how America and its citizens are portrayed in drama and in what kinds of circumstances. In other words, how others have chosen to use their knowledge of the US.
By my count, America – as a country – appeared three times in A Season in the Congo (directed by Joe Wright) plus an American accent was deployed once more within the action. At no point where these appearances treated as characters in the full sense of the word, but rather the US was included to show its place within the global context. The US was portrayed by the use of the Stars and Stripes draped over one wall of a balcony on a side of the stage (stage left) with the lines associated with American foreign policy being spoken by actor Joseph Mydell (who is American I only discovered yesterday by listening to the NT2000 Platform on Tony Kushner‘s Angels in America at the NT Archive), credited as a generic “US Ambassador”: America first expressed its displeasure at Patrice Lumumba (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) and urged his removal; it was alarmed that the Russians were hovering on the sidelines waiting to provide arms and it confronted Russia about its arming of Lumumba’s army against the Belgians (who were swarming in Katanga, which had seceded from independent Congo at the behest of Western political and economic powers – in a witty visual, this group of influential “bwanas” post-independence were portrayed by white puppets, perhaps a comment on puppet governments in general). The other American-accented character was a representative of the United Nations Official (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) who was reaming the UN Ghanian Colonel who had been complicit in the capture and assassination of Lumumba. Not unexpectedly in this context, the US is not the force for good it often purports to be – or at least its ideals as a country try to live up to.
What is complex about the representation of the US on the UK stage in this context is the fact that Aimé Césaire‘s play was written in 1966 and its representations of the US are – naturally – colored by the playwright’s portrayal(s) of post-colonialism. This is the first time – according to the programme – that this play has been performed in English, which indicates that this translation is potentially as influenced by our own recent history as Césaire was. In fact, the biographies include that of Marianne Badrichani who provided a literal translation although the credit for the version is that of Ralph Manheim who, unlike Badrichani, does not appear as part of “The Team”.
There is also no mention of the British Empire and colonialism – and certainly it would be worth investigating whether there was a British presence in the UN force, not to mention there were any British corporations involved in the Congo capitalizing on their rich resources – which leaves the impression (whether rightly or wrongly is still to be investigated) through potential erasure of history that the British were innocent in what happened in the Congo.
The programme also pushes the negative American angle by pointing out the contemporary parallels that are undoubtedly in the play through the portrayal of western inaction and covert involvement in the events that played out in the Congo in the 1950s and 1960s and were to eventually lead to the military coup by Joseph Mobutu and his 32-year dictatorship of what he re-named Zaire. These parallels only mention Britain once, but the catalogue of American ills is a paragraph in length:
With the world geo-political situation currently in such a febrile state, with British and American troops in Afghanistan, American intervention in Syria looking likely, Bradley Manning on trial for divulging US military secrets and PRISM whistleblower Edward Snowden, a play questioning the role of America to police the world (under the guise of guarding against Communism or now Islamic fundamentalism) has never been more timely or more relevant
“…the role of America”…? Well, yes, obviously that’s the case but the programme also holds the baggage of Tony Blair and Iraq, which angered Britain even when WMD seemed likely. The programme note seems to indicate that the textual choices reflect this reality as much as it reflected the rumour that the CIA had assassinated Lumumba (as it infers in the programme).